When Bob Boughner was hired by the Florida Panthers last summer, the rookie head coach brought with him a brand-new system and a simple mantra that eventually came to define the team's miraculous second-half surge that ended one point short of a playoff spot.
"Good teams find a way to win," he said in October. "Good teams don't lose two in a row."
After a bumpy 4-8-2 start and a first half rife with more growing pains than points, that message suddenly clicked for the Panthers midway through the season. No team won more games than Florida after the All-Star break, as the club posted an incredible 25-8-2 record during that span.
From nail biters to blowouts, the Panthers seemingly found a new way to win every night down the stretch, turning BB&T Center into a house of horrors for opposing teams by winning 16 of their final 19 games on home ice to finish with a franchise-record 27 home victories.
Like the "good team" Boughner envisioned, Florida had just two losing streaks after Jan. 30.
"That was very impressive, showed the resiliency [of the team]," Boughner said after last week's locker cleanout. "I talked a little bit about that. I talked about not being satisfied. We are still disappointed that we're not in the playoffs, but we know that we've had a heck of a year. Our start didn't go as planned, but the way we played as one of the best teams in the NHL in the second half, I think proved to everybody that we have what it takes to be a playoff team."
When asked to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for his team during the first two months of the season, Boughner admitted that the learning curve for his new system proved to be tougher to overcome than he had anticipated. The X's and O's were all there, but it took time for things to sink in with the players, who were learning under their third head coach in just four seasons.
"Well, I think at the beginning of the season, and after having all of the exit meeting with the players, you really realize that it took a while for them to adjust and to trust the system and to buy in," Boughner said. "I think it's a good thing that they see that they can have success when we are on the same page."
If you take a survey of players around the locker room, you'll find that there is actually a specific day in which the Panthers all ended up on that "same page." It was Dec. 19, and Florida, which was 13-16-5 at the time, was in a 2-1 hole after 40 minutes of play in Arizona.
In that second intermission, captain Derek MacKenzie said things had reached their "tipping point" and that the "guys had to look each other in the eye and say some things that probably weren't easy to say to each other." It was a moment in which the team could have packed it in and the wheels could have come off… but they didn't.
Instead, the team banded together, stuck to Boughner's system and came from behind in the third period to beat the Coyotes 3-2, a win that gave their season a second lease on life and kick started a five-game winning streak - their longest of the season at the time.
"I thought the whole staff did a fantastic job," MacKenzie said. "I think it was right around that time the coaching staff probably could have started second guessing themselves as far as all the systems they tried to put into place, but they stuck to it. They made believers out of us.
"I can't imagine the work they had to put in to get there. I can tell you that this team spent more time this year on the details of the game and trying to improve themselves away from the puck more than any other year I've been involved in for a long time."
Heading into next season, Boughner expects his system to now be second nature.
"Next year should be a more smooth transition coming out of training camp," he said. "I think that there's not going to be fifteen or twenty areas we have to cover every day and go over everything. It's going to be maybe two or three that we have to address and tighten up at a time, so that's going to be the biggest difference next year, I believe."
While Boughner is certainly deserving of a lot of credit for the strides the Panthers made this season, it's also important to highlight the contributions of his talented staff. Associate coach Jack Capuano helped mold one of the league's youngest defensive units, while assistant coach Paul McFarland oversaw the power play and helped Florida's centers reach new heights in the faceoff circle.
Longtime goaltending coach Robb Tallas not only helped the team overcome multiple injuries in net, but was also a key factor behind Roberto Luongo's resurgent season at age 38. As for new video coach Ben Cooper, he played a pivotal role in not only cutting clips for teaching purposes, but also used his keen eye to help win some crucial in-game coach's challenges.
With Boughner at the helm, the Panthers believe they've crafted the perfect coaching staff.
"I've had a lot of coaches and I've been with a lot of coaches. These guys as a staff work harder than anybody that I've ever been around," Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Dale Tallon said. "They're positive, insightful, knowledgeable, passionate, all those things that he showed me in the interview process… Our coaching is as good as anybody's in the league I think."